Exit Strategy

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s06-exit-strategy-shane-halbach

Delevan looked around the nondescript street again and squinted down at the scrap of cloth in his hand.

12 Carver’s Street, 2nd bell.

This was the place.

Delevan knocked hard on the solid oak door. Just because someone wanted to play faces and masks with him, didn’t mean he needed to participate. He knocked again, louder.

An older housekeeper opened the door and looked cross for a moment before looking down and seeing Delevan standing there.

“Well?” he asked, gruffly.

The woman hurried to stand to the side and he brushed by her. She closed the door, crossed the room, and exited through a second, interior door without saying a word.

Delevan felt his grumpiness inching toward true anger.

The room was large and well apportioned, much nicer than the building had looked from outside. He was standing in a great room with a large hearth on the far wall. A thick, red rug and an enormous wooden table, polished until it shone in the light from the big windows, dominated the center of the room. An oil painting hung on the wall showing a realistic depiction of a pear, of all things.

Delevan snorted and walked around the table, selecting the high-backed wooden chair that allowed him to see all the doors. He hated this room, with its ridiculous painting and enormous furniture. His legs dangled impotently, and he couldn’t rest his elbows on the table without looking like a pouty child.

Almost as soon as he was seated, there came another knock at the door. Again, the matronly housekeeper appeared and admitted a giant man with short-cropped hair. He wore leather breeches under a brown, rough-spun tunic in the Krykaran style: as long as a robe in front and back, but cut to his waist on the sides. His arms were bare and twined with tattoos. Incongruously, his fingers glittered with jewels, and he wore a silver sigil pinned over his heart.

The man took the seat around the corner to the left of Delevan, putting his back to the windows. He nodded to Delevan, but said nothing. Delevan said nothing either, for the moment allowing the game to play out. The man seemed at ease, but was probably just as clueless as Delevan.

Finally, footsteps approached from the inner door, and a small woman in pants and a deep green tunic entered the room. She wore her black hair long down her back, and her woven gold belt was slung fashionably off one hip.

“I should have known,” muttered Delevan.

“Ah, gentlemen, I’m so glad you could make it,” she beamed. “Delevan, this mountain next to you is Alden.”

“Al-DEN,” corrected Alden. “Al-DEN. Is strong at end, like spitting.”

“Now I understand the silly sneaking about, but what I don’t understand is why the Queen of Thieves felt she needed to meet with me,” said Delevan.

“Queen of Thieves, is it? I thought it was Lewin the Bold,” she mused.

“Aye, and Lewin the Ruthless, and a lot more besides. There’s no shortage of names to call you.”

Lewin laughed. “And what do you call me?”

“I don’t,” said Delevan.

“You should thank me, you know,” Lewin continued. “You’ve just been recruited into the score of a lifetime. Of many lifetimes.”

Delevan snorted. “Recruited? I don’t think so. Which one am I, the fiddler? I’m too ugly to be the lover, unless you’ve got a very peculiar mark.”

Lewin’s smile widened lazily. Delevan would have sworn it curled up at the edges, like a cat’s.

“You could say that. The mark is Staamgrin.”

“Staamgrin? The dragon?” asked Delevan in disbelief.

“Just hear me out,” said Lewin.

Delevan shoved his chair back and hopped to the floor. He glanced at Alden to see if the big man would try to prevent him from leaving, but Alden was inspecting one of his jeweled rings.

“It’s impossible, and it’s crazy. You’re familiar with the phrase ‘safer than a dragon’s horde,’ right? There’s a reason they say that.”

“Anything’s possible with the right plan,” said Lewin.

Delevan had already started for the door. “There’s nothing you can say that would make me step foot in that abattoir.”

“Some said it was impossible to get a supply train into Blendigstagg,” she said, low and quiet. “Crazy, even.”

Blendigstagg. The name twisted like a knife in his gut, and he stopped mid-stride. Delevan knew if he were facing her, she wouldn’t have a smile on her face anymore. He didn’t turn.

“After all this time…” said Delevan.

“You always knew I would. You knew that this was part of the deal.”

“You were repaid a hundred fold. It’s cost me plenty already.”

“But you gained just as much. The siege was lifted, Blendigstagg was saved. You won the war and became a hero.”

Delevan turned then, his face reddening.

“Don’t overstep. You saved the lives of me and my people, but you weren’t there for the rest of it. You weren’t there when I took the Horn, or anything after. You don’t know the first thing about what I’ve gained or lost.”

Still, he went back to his chair at the table. Alden was studying Delevan’s broad features with sudden interest.

“I’ll hear you out, and that’s it. And then we’re through.”

“That’s all I ask,” said Lewin, the hard mask of her face replaced once again by the easy smile. Delevan knew now which one was real and which was an act.

Faces and masks indeed.

Lewin unrolled an old scroll on the table, weighing the corners down with polished stones.

“Staamgrin’s not the first resident of The Rookery, and a lot of the ruins of old Hybrith still exist up there. This,” she said, tapping the scroll, “is an old structural drawing, obtained at some personal risk, which shows the palace where Staamgrin has his lair.

“The drawing shows an old servants’ corridor running to a tiny delivery door, just on the east side of the throne room.”

Delevan interrupted. “Staamgrin has been there for sixty years, at least. Do you think he hasn’t found all of the servants’ entrances?”

“He knows,” said Alden. “They always know. But also always think they are very clever.”

“Alden thinks that dragons leave some entrances open to entice thieves.”

“Easier than hunting. Dragons eat much.”

“And you two seem to be in a hurry to oblige him,” said Delevan.

“It’s Alden’s theory, not mine. This door is not exactly an open invitation. It can only be opened from the inside.”

“But if you’re already inside, you don’t need the door,” said Delevan. “Teleport?”

“No. In fact, no spells of any kind will function inside the lair. Except for Staamgrin’s, of course.”

“I believe Staamgrin has an amulet for his own magic, like nulling for spell-nulling, if touching you.”

“How do you know so much about Staamgrin?” asked Delevan.

“In Krykar, knowing about dragons is the wisest thing. Where do you think this Staamgrin comes from?”

“Don’t let Alden fool you. In addition to being a dragon expert, he is also an accomplished mage and artificer, which is particularly necessary for our plan.”

“I mistook him for a jeweler.”

Alden held up his hands, waggling his fingers so the jewels on his rings flashed in the light. He pointed to a fat ruby.

“With this one, I feel no fire.” He indicated a pale blue sapphire. “This one lets me breath under water.” Next, a sickly yellow stone. “This one makes me immune to acid. When I have enough rings, I will be invincible.”

“Do you have a ring to protect you from getting chewed up and spit out?”

Alden grinned broadly for the first time, and clapped Delevan hard on the shoulder. “No. There is no ring for that.”

“I guess it wouldn’t matter much, since magic won’t work in Staamgrin’s lair.”

Alden’s grin turned feral. “Staamgrin has spell-nulling. Rings is good Krykin artificery. Totally different.”

Delevan turned to Lewin. “Okay, I understand why you’re willing to cut Alden in. But why me? Surely you had other people to blackmail.”

“Because you’re calm in battle. Because you’re loyal to a fault. And most of all, because you always do what needs to be done.”

Delevan frowned at her.

“Cut it, Lewin. That silver tongue won’t work on me.”

“Well, there is one more thing.” Lewin smiled winningly. “You asked how we’re going to get inside?”

“Yes…”

“You’re going in—”

“No.”

“—alone, with no weapons—”

“No.”

“—smuggled inside of an urn.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Think of how much gold is just sitting up there, waiting for us to take it. Enough to rebuild an entire nation.”

She gave him a significant glance.

“The last thing a nation needs is gold stolen from a dragon.”

“It’s a pretty good fee for spending a little time in an urn.”

“Wait a minute. You’re only cutting me in because I’m short?”

“You were the only dwarf I could get on short notice.”

Alden barked a laugh. “Short notice!”

Delevan ignored him. “Even if I were going to let you pack me in a vase like a mackerel, which I’m not, and even if this secret door exists, which it probably doesn’t, there’s still the question of how we get the treasure out of there. The three of us could hardly carry enough to make it worth our while, and Staamgrin would hunt us down like rabbits before we could even get off the plateau.”

Lewin was undeterred. “You leave the exit strategy to me. All you have to do is open that door. Alden and I will take care of the rest.”

“No way. I’m not going into a dragon’s lair, alone, without even knowing how you plan to get the gold out. For all I know, I’m the distraction so the two of you have time to escape while Staamgrin has his dinner.”

Lewin looked at Alden.

“Show him.”

Alden reached under his tunic and took out two small pieces of black cloth, unfolding them on the table. Each a matte black with no shine, about fourteen inches in diameter. He put one of the circles in front of Delevan and smoothed it flat. He stood up and walked to the far end of the table, placing the other circle there.

“Now, you watch,” he said, and thrust his arm through the piece of cloth, past the elbow. Incongruously, his arm thrust out of the circle in front of Delevan and slapped him hard on the cheek. Delevan thrust himself away from the arm in surprise, lost his balance, and went over backward in the chair.

When he scrambled to his feet, Alden’s arm still rose from the table, like a serpent. He waggled his fingers.

“Blinking hell!” swore Delevan.

Alden removed his arm from the hole on his side and the disembodied arm on Delevan’s side slipped back into its hole.

“Is linked,” said Alden. “Dragon’s gold goes in one side, comes out other. We shovel in, ba ba ba, room full of gold.”

Delevan was quiet for a long time, and Lewin knew enough not to press him. The fabric holes disappeared back under Alden’s tunic. Finally, Delevan sighed.

“So?” asked Lewin.

“You know how much that gold could mean to us.”

“Loyal to a fault, and always does what needs to be done,” quoted Lewin.

“Do I at least get to see the urn first?” asked Delevan.

“Is better not,” said Alden.

“Don’t worry,” Lewin cut in quickly. “For most of that part, you’ll be asleep.”

Delevan awoke in the dark, with his legs cramped close underneath him and his arms crossed tight against his chest. He had a moment of panic, but mastered it as his memory came back.

The last thing he remembered was allowing Alden and Lewin to pack him into the tiny urn, so small that from the outside Delevan had sworn he wouldn’t fit. Lewin had been vague about how long he would be magically suspended, which meant that it had probably been a long time. Several days at least.

He guessed that he was now residing in Staamgrin’s treasure room, the anti-magic shell around the lair having nullified Alden’s sleeping spell.

The urn swayed as it was carried. Not knowing who, or what, was carrying him, Delevan tried to breathe as shallowly and quietly as he could. After a time, there was a grunt and a clang, as the urn was placed on the ground.

Delevan strained his ears for any further sound, but no clues about the world outside the urn filtered through. He couldn’t tell if he was alone or not, but caution seemed to dictate that he wait.

Eventually, his legs started to cramp, and he had an itch on the back of his head. Sweat trickled into his eyes, causing him to squint. He couldn’t tell if it had been half a day since the urn had been set down, or only moments. He suspected the latter; the threat of a massive dragon swooping down on him was making it seem as if time were passing faster than it really was.

Delevan waited until his legs were screaming, then waited longer. He could endure this; he had endured worse.

Finally, when the shaking in his cramping legs threatened to start rocking the urn, he leaned his head forward until he could feel the cool metal of the pressure plate that would release the catch on the lid.

Slowly he pressed with his forehead, until he heard the click of the latch. It echoed over and over in his ears.

Delevan held his breath, but no dragon fell upon him with fire and claws. No dragon-servant or toady came to investigate. He let his breath out in a huff and then he didn’t care anymore; he needed to be out of the vase.

He wriggled and kicked, worming his way upward toward the lid. His head burst out through the top in a wash of cool air. He filled his lungs with it. The air was dry with a faint acidic smell, but smelled better than Delevan had expected from a dragon’s lair.

He pushed down with his legs, wriggling to free his shoulders. The urn rocked back and forth and, before he could free his arms, tipped forward, smashing him face first into a pile of gold coins, chalices, and keepsake boxes decorated with jewels.

Lying on his side, he was able to pull his arms out and then haul the rest of his body out. He lay on an uncomfortable bed of gold, breathing hard.

“Looks like nobody’s home,” he mumbled to the semi-darkness. Alden must have known that would be the case. Delevan had no idea how much time Staamgrin actually spent in his lair, and suddenly realized it had been a colossal oversight not to ask. He wiped a thin trickle of blood from where a gemstone had cut his cheek when he fell and wondered what else he had forgotten to ask.

Eventually he dragged himself to his feet and set off in the direction of the servants’ corridor. He kept low, scuttling from mountain to mountain of treasure, expecting at any moment to hear the slither of scales on coins, or feel the wind of wing beats from above.

There were gold and silver trinkets of every imaginable shape. Silver bracelets set with moonstones, golden chalices with leaping stags set in diamonds, and coins showing the faces of emperors long forgotten. The sheer variety was staggering, and Delevan found it difficult to keep moving past it. Even a random armful from any of the piles would be enough to replace every leaky roof in Hostenfallen, double the forge space in the commons, and buy new breeding stock for the goat herds to boot. It would be a huge step on the road to reclaiming the people they had been before the war.

He shook his head and moved on. He’d never escape with the gold alive. Like it or not, he was dependent on Lewin and her exit strategy.

Finally, he located the tunnel that lead away from the main treasure store and followed it to the door. He could move quicker in the tunnel without the feeling of eyes watching his every move.

The door was stone with a complicated-looking mechanism holding it in place, but when Delevan tugged on the lever, it opened easy enough. The door rumbled and air and light streamed in from outside.

“About time!” said Lewin, but her tone wasn’t annoyed. In fact, she seemed downright gleeful.

She brushed past Delevan. When they were through, Delevan let go of the door and it immediately slammed shut with a clap that made him wince. Alden handed him a shovel.

“Is not time for standing around like deskreegin,” said Alden. “Dragon lives here you know.”

Lewin didn’t wait for Delevan to take the lead, but started off toward the treasure room. Delevan trailed behind them, for the first time starting to feel optimistic.

Lewin didn’t stop at the first mound of treasure, but instead led them deep into the room before stopping at a pile that looked indistinguishable from any of the other piles.

“Here,” she said.

Alden produced the fabric circle and placed it carefully on the ground. When he stood back up, Lewin took a coin from the pile and tossed it into the hole. Delevan held his breath while the coin spun through the air, sailing through the hole and falling for a few seconds before bouncing with a clink on the stone floor of Lewin’s vault.

They took a moment to grin at each other before immediately going to work with their shovels. Each clattering shovelful sent another load of priceless treasures bouncing into Lewin’s storehouse. The noise was tremendous.

Suddenly the room shook with a sound that drowned out the bounce and clatter of gold and silver. The roar was loud enough to rattle the stacks of precious metal and freeze the three of them in place.

Staamgrin was back.

Alden dropped his shovel and ran for it, his footsteps quickly disappearing into the treasure room.

Lewin calmly picked up his shovel and dropped it into the hole before redoubling her own shoveling efforts. The cascade of metal into the hole was louder than ever.

“Lewin, we have to get out of here! We’re out of time!”

“We have a few more seconds. Help me!” she cried.

Delevan took her arm and began to tug her away.

“Lewin, listen to me! It doesn’t do much good if you can’t spend it! And you can’t spend it from inside a dragon’s gullet.”

Lewin shook her head to clear it before tossing in their two shovels. Then she kicked in a few rings and some silverware for good measure.

“NOW!” roared Delevan and tugged hard on her arm, sending her sprawling forward. Then she was up, and the two of them were running.

“We have to get back to the door,” said Delevan.

“No, don’t bother. That was a one-time use.”

Delevan slid to a halt.

“What do you mean, a one-time use?”

“Sealed. We assumed opening the door would also notify Staamgrin. Looks like we were right.”

“So we’re stuck in here with a dragon? And Alden is the only one who could have helped us, that coward.”

“No, I told you, you have to be actually touching Staamgrin for magic to work in here,” Lewin muttered absent-mindedly. She began patting her pockets. “Hey, did you see me grab the…”

Suddenly, Staamgrin was there, lunging over a pile of gold and snapping his enormous jaws. Delevan knocked Lewin to the side just as the huge maw slammed into the ground where she had been standing.

Staamgrin’s head was enormous, bigger than the two of them combined. He probably could have swallowed them both whole without even having to chew.

“We have to go back!” shouted Lewin, stumbling to her feet. Lacking any other plan, Delevan scrambled after her.

Staamgrin didn’t bother going around the treasure mounds, he simply plowed right through. Delevan rolled to avoid Staamgrin’s teeth and almost got buried under a wave of gold trinkets knocked by a tree-sized foreleg. Lewin leapt the opposite way, and Delevan lost sight of her.

Delevan bowled into some sort of statuette and came to rest in a heap. Staamgrin’s head snaked high, high above him, fixing him with glittering eyes. Delevan could not gain his feet in time for another dodge.

“Staamgrin, hau aulfin!” cried a voice in Krykaran. “Ausen ta Krykar lasten hollousk!”

Staamgrin’s head whipped around like lightening and Delevan saw Alden standing atop a treasure mound, his arms raised. Alden bellowed and Staamgrin struck like a snake, his head snapping forward, jaws wide. The impact shook the floor of the building.

When the enormous head rose into the air again, Alden was gone.

Delevan wasted no time mourning him, lest his sacrifice be wasted. He struggled to his knees and then his feet, skittering deeper into the dragon’s lair.

Delevan crouched low, listening intently. Coins and other trinkets bounced and clattered from all around him. Some of them were no doubt just resettling after all of the commotion, and some of them were Staamgrin attempting a stealthier approach. Which was which? That was the question.

Delevan saw movement out of the corner of his eye and he dove to the side, but it was only Lewin, waving her hands at him furiously. He scuttled to her position on all fours, like a dog.

“We’ve got to get back to where we started,” she whispered. “Gods curse and wrack my stupid head! I forgot to grab the hole!”

“Forget the blasted hole,” Delevan hissed back. “That monster ate Alden whole. What in blinking hell was your plan to get out of here?”

“If we don’t get that hole, Staamgrin can track us straight home. Either we get away clean, or we’re as good as dead.”

“You’ll never find it in here.”

“I know right where it is,” Lewin pointed at the ceiling a little ways off. “Do you see the intersection of those two beams? I set us up right under that.”

“Okay, so walk over there and get it.”

“You’re coming with me. You’ve saved my life at least twice so far. I need to keep you close in case I have to repay the favor.”

“If we hadn’t come here, nobody would have had to save anybody’s life!”

“True,” she said with a smile, “But nobody would have a vault full of gold waiting for them at home, either.”

Together they wove their way back toward the pile that Lewin had indicated, sneaking as quietly as they could. Delevan thought perhaps he heard the scrape and slither of something large to their right, but it could have been his imagination.

Their particular pile of treasure had been decimated, flattened by the passage or attack of Staamgrin. However, the hole was nowhere to be seen.

“Where is it?” she hissed.

“Assuming this is even the right place, it must have gotten buried,” said Delevan.

Lewin began searching frantically through the treasure on the floor.

“Shh!” hissed Delevan.

“We’ve got to find it before Staamgrin…”

“No, shhh!” said Delevan.

Lewin stopped digging. Faintly, metal clinked nearby.

“There!” said Delevan, pointing to something moving beneath the gold.

Lewin pounced and swept away the gold around it. Beneath several inches of treasure lay the hole, slowly emptying the trinkets piled on top of it like sand through an hourglass.

Lewin snatched up the cloth triumphantly and put it in her pocket.

“We have to move! Staamgrin surely heard us,” said Delevan.

“No need,” said Lewin, no longer whispering. “We’re back on plan.”

“Back on plan?” asked Delevan incredulously. “Was it in the plan for Alden to get eaten?”

“Yes,” replied Lewin.

Ice water ran through Delevan’s veins.

“And is it in the plan for me to be eaten as well, Lewin the Ruthless?”

“Yes,” replied Lewin again. “Time to execute the exit strategy.”

At that moment, Staamgrin stalked low from behind a pile of treasures, his enormous head rising silently to tower over them.

Lewin spoke urgently in Delevan’s ear. “You need him to swallow you whole. Try not to get bitten.”

“Thanks for the tip,” said Delevan sarcastically, pushing her away roughly.

“Once you’re inside, Alden will teleport you out!”

Delevan turned away from the dragon who was about to eat him and looked fully at Lewin.

“Wait, being eaten by a dragon really was your plan all along?”

“Why do you think we didn’t tell you that part?”

“I’m not going to just allow a dragon to eat me.”

“What choice do you have?”

Staamgrin roared at full volume. His head dove at Delevan, faster than thought. Delevan had no chance to avoid it, but it still took every ounce of nerve to keep from dodging the dark, tooth-lined cavern speeding toward him. The enormous mouth closed around him and Delevan drove forward, arms up like a diver.

He was still screaming when he felt large hands grabbing his forearms.

“It’s more than we dared to hope,” said Lewin. “We didn’t account for how much went through when Staamgrin knocked the pile on top of the hole.”

“I can’t carry my full share with me. Can I trust you to keep it for a while?”

“Lewin the Trustworthy they call me.”

Delevan snorted.

“I think I’ll start by buying a kingdom,” she continued. “A nice one, too, not like this dump.”

“Nations are perhaps more expensive than you realize,” said Delevan quietly.

“Don’t give it all away, okay? Keep something for yourself for once.”

“And Alden?”

“More rings I would guess. His materials are very expensive.”

“If you were wrong, and Alden’s magic didn’t work even while touching the dragon, we’d be so much meat in Staamgrin’s stomach right now.”

Lewin shrugged. “No risk, no reward.”

“Very well, then,” said Delevan, stepping up onto his new pony. “It’s a long ride to Hostenfallen.”

“Go carefully; I hear there are thieves about.”

“No risk, no reward,” he called over his shoulder.

The shaggy pony started slowly for the west, and Hostenfallen.

end article

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Shane Halbach

About Shane Halbach

Shane Halbach lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids, where he writes software by day and avoids writing stories by night. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming from Analog, Escape Pod, and The Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction, among others. He blogs regularly at shanehalbach.com, or can be found on Twitter @shanehalbach.